Friday, February 29, 2008

Plus One

february already come and gone,
tracing its shortcut thru the year

On the turntable: Groove Armada, "Back to Mine"
On the nighttable: Nicolas Bouvier "The way of the World"
On the reel table: "M. Hulot's Holiday" (Tati, 1953)

Thursday, February 21, 2008

A-Going, A-Going...

Last week was Agon-shu's huge Hoshi Matsuri event in the hills above Kiyomizu-dera. I'd been wanting to go for years, but always seemed to hear about it afterward, usually in that half-page ad in the Japan Times that the sect shells out big money for.

A small group of us met at Keage station and began the walk up to the site. It was a mobile Oz Fest, with most of our number either being from Melbourne, or having previously lived there. Along the way, we passed many Agon-shu acolytes in their yamabushi clothes, hands together in gassho. The ones at the top greeted us with a simple, "Welcome home." There were thousands of people up here (half a million I later heard), funneled down a narrow dirt road gone grey and muddy from the weekend's snow. At the far end of the bottleneck was an open space with a small stage and many tables selling food and the wooden gomaki tablets on which people would write their prayers. We all got rice balls and complimentary black tea, nervously joking whether the latter was safe to drink. It was a beautiful day, pleasant to stand in the sunshine and look around at the bizarre carnival aspect of it all. I hadn't expected this. Men and women dressed somewhat like leprechans worked the crowd, greeting and smiling, while an old man and a group of young women, all dressed as Daikokuten, danced on stage to traditional Japanese flutes and strings, singing a song with religious lyrics. It was like a psychedelic church camp. We found it fun to rubberneck and poke fun, but when I left our circle of mirth to find a bathroom, I began to notice something else. Walking among the crowd was a first hand encounter with hive mind. I noticed how damaged many of these people looked. Japanese society is built with the mortar of fitting in, and walking the streets of any city is like strolling around Disneyland. Things are just too pristine. Up here, we could see 'other.' A few of them had blank, lifeless eyes.

I'm not going to call this New Religion a cult. And it's hardly a new idea that religion offers refuge for those who are most desperate for it. Which is great. But too many confuse the finger for the moon, and history is rife with examples of those who do happen to find the moon on their own, later having their eyes poked out with those same fingers. I realize I'm biased. My own spirituality is based on compassion, but I have very little for religion itself. I'm working on transcending that irony.

We moved down the hill to the center of the hive itself. A large square stadium had been built to house this event. People stood and leaned on the rails ringing the site. The earthen floor below looked like the setting where bulls - or Christians - delight spectators with their violent deaths. Two massive bonfires were going, one in honor of the dead, the other for the living, both the size of a modest house. More acolytes in yamabushi garb scurried around the latter, tossing in those wooden tablets on which people had written their prayers. Others splashed laddles of water over the whole thing, creating more smoke to ensure the delivery of said prayers. Apparently smoke is the snail mail of the gods. A taiko group kept the beat, very tight. Their high level of skill attests to how much they must practice. We leaned into the rail, breathless partly by all the smoke, mostly by the spectacle. At one point the crowd was hushed and asked to place our hands together in gassho. From below, the Heart Sutra began in a low drone, quickly spreading throughout the crowd. The sect's head, Kiriyama Seiyu stood up and began to make esoteric mikkyo hand gestures toward the flame. His assistant stood beside him, holding a huge paper umbrella about two meters in diameter over his master, following his every movement. The effect was like watching a sahib on safari, aiming at human souls. When he was finished, we all bowed our heads in silent prayer. The only sounds to be heard were the occasional pop! of exploding wood, and the far off sound of a politician-to-be pandering from the valley below. The thought of this candidate being Komeito nearly made me squeal with ironic-satori delight. Then suddenly, the chanting resumed and more gomaki tablets were thrown into the flames. The wood itself was scrap, recycled. What of the prayers themselves?
We tore ourselves away from this and wandered over to the temple itself. Along the way, three of us stopped to try to make sense of a sign describing planetary-based fortune telling of some kind. We were only there for a few minutes, but when we looked up, we found that we were part of another massive queue. Somebody joked that in Japan, if you stand still long enough, a line is sure to develop. We eventually made it up to the main temple. Miki and I had been here nearly a year ago, which I recounted here. The massive open courtyard then was today covered by a few new structures. One had a stage for kagura, and another seemed to have an foundation of solid concrete. When I later tapped it with my foot, it resounded with a hollow sounding thud. (I'll let you supply your own metaphor here.)

We descended, following a trail beside which an old marker had the words, "Maruyama" carved in stone. Somehow we got turned round and became lost. Our karma no doubt for the giggles up above. Finally we wound up having to hop a small wall into the towering Okudani Cemetery. The sheer number of graves in here was staggering, evenly laid rows leading down the slope toward the borrowed scenery of downtown. One of our group said, "I can't tell you how many times this happens. We're walking along, get lost in the forest, and wind up in the cemetery." I said nothing. Again, some metaphors are just too obvious.

On the turntable: RL Burnside, "A Ass pocket of Whiskey"
On the nighttable: Donald Richie, "Travels in the East"
On the reel table: "Blade Runner" (Scott, 1982/2007)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Death Imitates Art

Last  fall, while traipsing around North America, I entertained myself with DVDs of "Absolutely Fabulous."  On one of the special features, Jennifer Saunders mentioned that out of their many controversial gags, the one they were most worried about was jokingly refering to 9/11 as 7/11.  I know that I  laughed.

And I laughed again when a friend of mine accidently made the same slip.  Granted, she isn't a native speaker and had a bit of wine in her.  The nonsense aspect of it is just what this "9/11" deserves.  The fact that the media and the populace turned a tragedy that touched (and with the Iraq debacle continues to touch) the lives of millions into a slogan, a brand, is pathetic.  I guess it makes the whole thing more palatable to the little minds more attuned to Reality TV than to reality. (Note the lower case.)  

A few years ago I met a woman who lost her young son to cancer.  His birthday happened to share the date on which my own son died. She and I were at a Zen center on that day, so we had the monks perform a short ceremony.  Later this woman wrote to thank me for observing with her, "10/14."

I like this woman, a woman of immense intelligence and kindness. But when I read that, I wanted to absolutely fucking throttle her. 

On the turntable:  The Stooges, "1970: The Complete Funhouse Sessions"

On the reel table:  "Record of a Tenement Gentleman"  (Ozu, 1947)

Saturday, February 16, 2008


Snow flurries blowing sideways,

Like a rushing river of

Kurosawa celluloid samurai

On the turntable: "Rough Guide to Tito Puente"

On the reel table: "Amelie" (Jeunet, 2001)

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Sunday Papers: Victor Hugo

"During the world's first six thousand years...architecture was the great script of the human race...not only every religious symbol but also every human thought has its own passage and its own monument in this immense book."

On the turntable: !Ay Caramba!, "Ska Cubano"
On the reel table: "Ran" (Kurosawa, 1985)

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Bon Hiver!

I step outside to get the paper. The whole valley is a sugarbowl. The sun is just now peering over the rim, and the air is filled with the sound of light rain, as the snow gently melts from the trees.
Huge bamboo trees seem to sigh as they can fiiiiinally put down their burden. Emasciated tree limbs are decorated with clear bangles. The street is really flowing now. Walking up the icy hill last night was quite laborious. I'm glad we don't have a car.

This morning has none of the violence of last week's walk in Tokyo, under the constant threat of being beaned by wet slushy glops. Stumbling through a constantly shifting, Dali-esque melting world. It was the ugliest snow I'd ever seen, a crow in a world of doves...

On the turntable: Shakti, "The Believer"
On the nighttable: Pico Iyer, "The Lady and the Monk"
On the reel table: "The Police Inside Out" (Copeland, 2006)

Friday, February 08, 2008

New Year's Past

Marcin came to town midweek, followed a few days later by Taiko Tari. Hideyo rounded out the foursome, and we all went up to see the PPC thing put on by three of the livelier Kodo members. On the way, we joked about what PPC stood for, Tari trumping us all with her "People Playing Concert." The hall was funnier still, this tiny place where puppet shows get star billing. The show seemed hastily put together, but the amateur aspect was the most endearing part, befitting the surroundings. We took some of the silliness with us as we walked through Takaraga-ike Park under a sky slowly falling, eventually winding up at that Indian place that I consider the best in town. Apparently the owner of rival Sujata must agree with me, for he was at the next table. Well into his shochu, he regaled us with tales of....something. Over his shoulder, the man who made our Naan stood in the doorway picking his nose. I decided not to tell the others, but they know now.

We had a slumber party at my place. In the morning, Marcin and I went down the hill to DONQ to fetch brunch Later, we decided to climb up Fushimi Inari. Tari and I ate whole sparrows on a stick, then washed our hands using the ladles at the entrance to the shrine. The whole place was gearing up for the Eve ahead, vendors setting up their stands. Surprisingly, the best location had been scored by a kabab stand.

We followed the trails partway up, then wandered down through the woods toward Tofukuji. We caught a train back up to Shijo, warming up in Starbucks awhile, until Okera mairi was ready to start at nearby Yasaka Jinja. The priests carried their fire through the crowd, the atmosphere like a subdued India somehow. Tari got her rope of fire, which she twirled with a certain coolness as we walked through Maruyama Park. All that was missing was her Zoot Suit.

Tari and I set off on out own to Tom's Bar for a pre-party. Nearing midnite, we met up with Big Paul and Shino-chan to ring in the New Year at their small local temple. Shino is a friend of the priest's family, so we got the invite for toshikoshi soba. Warm and full again, we walked to a crowded Shimogamo to join the rest of the Kyo in their 'traditional ways of spending money."

The next morning, I thought that this had been one of the best New Years I'd ever had in Japan. Later it dawned on me that it had been the first really good Eve since losing Ken. Each new year brought with it the same thought, "Another year without you in it." That mantra had been created a few months after his death, somewhere in deep Osaka, walking unfamilar streets while trying to hide my ceaseless flow of tears from the strangers all lined up to ring the temple bell. The worst had been the following year, tearing myself abruptly away from a table of surprised friends in a whiskey-fuelled despair that led me to his grave, where I sobbed for an hour in lightly falling snow, finally arriving at the place that was, and thankfully continues to be, rock bottom. The next few Eves were slept through, as if denying the arbitrariness of the whole thing, though one year, in New Mexico, I did awaken briefly to the sound of celebratory gunfire, the bullets falling onto the desert like that cemetery snow of a year before.

The snow fell again lightly this quiet New Years day. In a while I'd board a train for Hiroshima to join Miki. She'd had a completely different experience altogether. A sudden bout of norovirus had inspired her creative side, brought up in representations of meals past, done in green.

On the turntable: Angelique Kidjo, "Djin Djin"

On the nighttable: "Jungle Crows" (Hillel Wright, ed.)

On the reel table: "A Trick of Light" (Wenders, 1996)

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

My Tuesday was just Super!

One for the Yanks...

Answer the questions, then find out which presidential candidate speaks to your issues.  

My boy Kucinich(?!) is currently on long holiday.  

On the turntable:  Ornette Coleman, "This is Our Music"
On the nighttable:  Kenneth Rexroth, "An Autobiographical Novel"
On the reel table:  Naqoyatsi  (Reggio, 2002)

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Sunday papers: Graham Greene

"When a man leaves a woman he begins to hate her. or is it that he hates his own failure? Perhaps we want to destroy the only witness who knows exactly what we are like when we drop the comedy."

--The Honorary Consul

On the turntable: Van Morrison, "Common One"

On the nighttable; D.L. deJongh, "Genkaku"

On the reel table: "Ohayo" (Ozu, 1959)